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Week of 11 October 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 7

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Polishing the Pearl
Prof’s creative preservation effort key to saving historic black church

By Hope Green

They call it the Pearl of Portsmouth. With its high tin ceilings, arched stained-glass windows, and wrought-iron balconies, the weathered 19th-century building is classic New England.

CAS Professor Richard Candee


CAS Professor Richard Candee


The former home of the People’s Baptist Church, New Hampshire’s first African-American congregation, is perhaps the most significant artifact of black history in the state. A multiracial New Year’s service was held at the church for many years to celebrate the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years ago this month, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) preached there at a special event while he was still a doctoral student at BU.

Now a function hall, the structure is starting to crumble, and its owner can’t afford long-overdue repairs. But with help from a BU preservation studies professor, efforts are under way to restore the Pearl and permanently protect its historic integrity.

CAS Professor Richard Candee has recruited a graduate student to assist with the project, and eventually he hopes to get entire classes into the act.
“I don’t like teaching courses that don’t have any reality,” explains Candee, director of preservation studies in the GRS American and New England Studies Program (AMNESP). “I like real projects.”

In the late 19th century, many African-American congregations started forming in small rooms, often in private homes. When enough members had joined, some of these groups were able to purchase buildings from white congregations that had moved out. Such was the case with the People’s Baptist Church parishioners, who bought the Pearl in 1915. The structure, originally built in 1857, served the city’s black community until the 1970s.

In his National Register of Historic Places application, graduate student Tim Orwig noted the church’s Italianate style, including “its wide eaves and round-arched windows with ornamental wooden hoods, decorated with oversize keystones and pendant acorn drops.” Contemporary church photos by Tim Orwig

  In his National Register of Historic Places application, graduate student Tim Orwig noted the church’s Italianate style, including “its wide eaves and round-arched windows with ornamental wooden hoods, decorated with oversize keystones and pendant acorn drops.” Contemporary church photos by Tim Orwig

A restaurateur bought and remodeled the building in 1984 for an eatery that later failed, and in the early 1990s the structure was sold to its current owner, a stained-glass artist, who rents out the space for worship services as well as for weddings and other events. None of the owners in the past five decades has had enough money to maintain the building, which suffers from a leaky roof, a belfry eroded with dry rot, broken clapboards, and other damage. But a few years ago an advocacy group called the Friends of the Pearl began seeking funds to make the repairs.

The group is a committee of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, an umbrella for several community organizations interested in preserving African-American historic sites in the city.

Candee for two years has worked pro bono as a fundraiser for the Friends of the Pearl, securing both state and private grants for the church restoration. Roof work is scheduled to begin in November, and in April a contractor will remove the belfry and relocate it to the backyard of a historic home for repairs.

Having the belfry’s reconstructive surgery at eye level is a bonus, says Candee, who envisions preservationists and school groups visiting the site to watch the timber framing in progress. With enough funding, a later phase of the project could include re-creating the original spire, which is believed to have been lost in the Hurricane of 1938. A shorter spire stands in its place.

Someday, the Black Heritage Trail organizers would like to purchase the building, which it could share with other black cultural organizations. This would require the creation of a business plan, and here Candee sees opportunities for AMNESP students. He hopes to arrange a seminar this spring that would focus on financial aspects of the Pearl preservation.

A 19th-century photograph of the church, with its original tall spire above the belfry.


A 19th-century photograph of the church, with its original tall spire above the belfry.


“I think our students could best be used by helping everybody think more concretely about how this building could meet a variety of needs,” says Candee, author of Building Portsmouth, a book on the city’s architectural history. “Some people think if it’s under a preservation easement you can’t change anything, but that’s not actually true. We can get artist renderings and talk about how the building would be used and what it would cost, and I think that’s where my students can play a role.”

Candee is raising funds through a model state program that New Hampshire launched two years ago. It will not only finance the current repairs but also assure the building’s long-term stability. Under this arrangement, the Pearl’s owner has granted an easement to a nonprofit preservation organization. Funding from the state and from corporate and private backers will also help endow the easement, so the nonprofit can protect the character-defining historic features of the structure in perpetuity.

“This is comparable to the easement a land trust would make to preserve open space,” says Candee. “Most people don’t know you can do the same thing with buildings.”

Further protection could come from the federal government. Architectural history student Tim Orwig (GRS’01) recently filed an application nominating the Pearl to the National Register of Historic Places. To make his case, Orwig, who is pursuing his doctoral degree through AMNESP, wrote a description of the structure’s features in painstaking detail and
explained its role in the development of New Hampshire’s African-American community.

Through this and other class projects, which recently included the rescue of a historic New Hampshire mansion and a survey of an African-American church in Newton, AMNESP students perform real-world preservation work.

  The Pearl of Portsmouth today. Built in 1857, the structure stands in a working-class neighborhood, away from the city’s historic district.

Were it not for Candee’s help, the Pearl might one day fall into the hands of condominium developers, says Valerie Cunningham, president and founder of the Black Heritage Trail.

“I certainly don’t have his expertise,” says Cunningham, whose family belonged to the Pearl congregation when she was growing up. “I do research. I sit in dusty rooms and look things up, but I don’t know all the intricacies of getting grants and proving why the building is worth saving. Dr. Candee has been the key person to the whole project. It’s something he believes in -- it has caught his heart and mind.”

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) was the keynote speaker at an anniversary celebration at the People’s Baptist Church on October 26, 1952. His future wife, Coretta Scott, a soprano then studying at the New England Conservatory, sang a solo that day. On Sunday, October 27, at 4 p.m., the Black Heritage Trail will recall the occasion in a commemorative program at the church, which is located at the corner of Hanover and Pearl streets in Portsmouth, N.H. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information, call 603-431-2768.


11 October 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations